To the ancient Egyptians, the heron-like “Bennu” bird—the heart and soul of their Sun-deity, Ra—created itself from a fire, burned on a holy tree in one of the sacred precincts of the god’s temple. In fact, one of his honorary titles was He Who Came into Being by Himself. More than 3,000 years later, a celestial Bennu has also come newly into existence as the name of a distant asteroid, though not by any spiritual or supernatural means … but through the efforts of a third-grade student from North Carolina.
In September 2016, NASA will launch its Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security Regolith Explorer—a rather meaty title, which the agency has carved into the impressive acronym “OSIRIS-Rex”—to visit, study, and return to Earth a sample of an asteroid until now known only by its rather drab scientific name of (101955) 1999 RQ36. Discovered in September 1999, the asteroid measures a third of a mile in diameter and takes about 1.2 years to circle the Sun; a path which brings it near Earth every six years. Now renamed “Bennu,” the asteroid is considered a potential impact risk, although the probability of it hitting us is thought to be no higher than 0.07 percent.
Two years after launch, in 2018, the $800 million OSIRIS-Rex—developed by the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, together with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Lockheed Martin Space Systems—will rendezvous with the asteroid and spend 505 days mapping its surface features from a distance of about 3 miles. This process will enable investigators to zero-in on a potential sampling location, and OSIRIS-Rex will approach Bennu, extend its robotic arm, and retrieve a physical specimen for return to Earth. Up to three sampling attempts will be made, perhaps capturing as much as 4.4 pounds of asteroidal surface material.
And the spacecraft’s robotic arm—or its shape, at least—is what drew 9-year-old Michael Puzio to suggest the new name for the asteroid. OSIRIS-Rex carries wing-like solar arrays and a device known as Touch-and-Go Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), which struck Puzio as looking very much like the mythical Egyptian Bennu bird, which closely resembled a grey heron. Last year, The Planetary Society, together with Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory and the University of Arizona, announced a “Name That Asteroid” contest to bestow a name on (101955) 1999 RQ36. More than 8,000 students, all under 18 years of age, from 25 different countries, tendered their suggestions and explanations for their choices.
Puzio’s suggestion of “Bennu” struck an immediate chord with the science teams. “The similarity between the image of the heron and the TAGSAM arm of OSIRIS-Rex was a clever choice,” said Bruce Betts, director of projects for The Planetary Society and one of the contest judges. “The parallel with asteroids as both bringers of life and as destructive forces in the Solar System also created a great opportunity to teach.” According to Puzio, the TAGSAM arm and OSIRIS-Rex’s solar panels resembled the neck and wings of the Bennu bird. Additionally, Bennu also means The Ascending One or To Shine.
“There were many excellent entries that would be fitting names and provide us an opportunity to educate the world about the exciting nature of our mission,” said Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona in Tucson, a contest judge and principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission. “The information about the composition of Bennu and the nature of its orbit will enable us to explore our past and better understand our future.”
The Obama administration’s policy for NASA is to attempt to visit and capture an asteroid and bring it into cislunar space for visitation by astronauts, perhaps as soon as 2021. The mission of OSIRIS-Rex is expected to contribute enormously to the techniques and technologies needed to accomplish such a momentous feat. Since pristine, carbonaceous asteroids like Bennu are thought to represent conditions at the very dawn of our Solar System, the opportunity to deliver these primordial samples directly into the hands of scientists is expected to yield important clues about the origin and evolution of the Sun’s realm. Assuming the sample-capture process goes well, the OSIRIS-Rex return capsule will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in 2023 and land at the Utah Test and Training Range.
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